The evening starts with grating sounds that get louder and louder — cicadas, as we learn later from a character in Appropriate, the play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins that's currently receiving a regional premiere at Curious Theatre Company. The insects’ grit-between-your-teeth sound is their final song: It means they’ve emerged from underground and are seeking mates; soon after mating, they will die. The song is punctuated by an occasional tortured violin chord, and after a few minutes, you start wishing with all your heart that the sound would stop. And once the action has begun and two people are speaking across a very dim stage, you’re also wishing that someone would for pity’s sake turn up the lights and reveal faces. Now you’re in precisely the unsettled state of mind that director Jamil Jude wants you to be for this absorbing, ghost-haunted play.
Members of an Arkansas family are returning to their home after the death of the family patriarch to sort the mess of stuff he’s left behind — the old man was a hoarder, among other unpleasant things — and attend an auction and sale of the battered old house. Toni, whose stabs at organization are anxious and futile, is one of those overbearing, malevolent mother figures you’ve seen before, but Toni has complex facets, and actor Dee Covington reveals them all. Rhys, Toni’s son, loathes and avoids his mother, and slopes around the place draped in bedclothes. I thought for a few minutes that I disliked Alec Sarche’s performance in this unpleasant role, then realized that it’s exactly right. Toni’s relationship with her two brothers — businessman Bo (Erik Sandvold) and Frank (Sean Scrutchins), the family renegade, who, after a ten-year disappearance, has just returned with his hippie lover, River (Rhianna DeVries) — is angry and volatile. Sandvold turns in a strong, deceptively calm performance as Bo; Scrutchins is a terrific Frank. Bo is accompanied by his energetic, hyper-organized Jewish wife, Rachel; Mare Trevathan plays her in another top-notch performance. The entire family is in one way or another profoundly soul-sick — you sense incest — and there’s a whiff of corruption to even Bo’s children, teenage Cassidy (Audrey Graves) and eight-year-old Ainsley (Harrison Lyles-Smith). But if the shared family psyche is murky, the dialogue is strong and clean, and all of these people hold your fascinated attention.
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Jacobs-Jenkins is a widely praised young African-American playwright who has explored several theatrical conventions. In Appropriate, he consciously employs the familiar “family coming together after a death” trope, and every character except the old man’s caretaker, Juanita, who’s discussed but never seen, is Caucasian. Yet race dominates and eventually upends the evening. A book of lynching photographs is discovered on a shelf. Again and again, someone is asked to dispose of this book; again and again, the photos rise to the surface of the action like a bloated corpse to the surface of a river. Rachel insists that her children be protected from seeing them, at least until she’s present to explain, but when the youngsters do discover the ugly secret, there’s no adult there to explain, and their reaction is in some ways more jaded than that of their parents.
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Toni insists to the point of hysteria that her father was no racist. Bo seems to know the truth in his bones but opts to remain in denial. Eventually, almost everyone is drawn into a discussion of the commercial value of these ugly relics. As intensely as you wanted those clattering cicadas silenced at the beginning of the evening, you now find yourself longing for one of the characters, just one, to display even the tiniest shred of humanity. No one does. Or if there is a glimmer, it’s rapidly snuffed out.
Significantly, two graveyards sit nearby: the family cemetery with its overturned tombstones and, further off, the unmarked graves of slaves. The presence of the dead suffuses the house, and those who grew up there, no matter how much they struggle, are maddened by their history.
Unlike Germany, which, after years of obfuscation, admitted guilt for the Holocaust and offered victims restitution, the United States has never really acknowledged its foundational sins. Appropriate makes this clear, but through metaphor, art and imagination rather than by preaching. It implies that only the harsh, uncaring winds of history can cleanse the country’s guilt — and they are winds that leave nothing behind but silence and devastation.
Appropriate, presented by Curious Theatre Company through October 14, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524, curioustheatre.org.